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CANADA: Some Say Afghan Mission Is in the Wrong Hands

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Feb 26 2008 (IPS) - As Canada’s parliament debates whether to extend the country’s mission in Afghanistan beyond next year’s withdrawal deadline, some peace advocates and conflict resolution experts say a U.N.-led mission is the best bet to negotiate a peace settlement involving all of the major parties in the ongoing civil war.

Walter Dorn, a Canadian professor who has been a training advisor for the U.N. department of peacekeeping operations, told IPS that with more than 100,000 peacekeepers in the field, including military and civilian personnel in 17 missions around the world, the U.N. has had an excellent record in building the peace in a variety of countries, including Sierra Leone, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and El Salvador.

An instructor at the Canadian Forces College in suburban Toronto and author of the forthcoming “Global Peace Operations 2008”, Dorn said that a U.N.-hosted force in southern Afghanistan could be deployed to provide security during a period of negotiations for a peace settlement. Such a force should, he said, include troops from Muslim countries so as to make the mission less of “a [U.S. President] George Bush-initiated operation that looks to locals like an invasion.”

While Canadians could play a civilian administrative role, he believes their soldiers – of whom there are currently 2,500 deployed in Afghanistan – would have to be excluded from any potential U.N. force because their presence in a NATO combat force in the field has already tainted them as biased toward one of the sides in the civil conflict.

“In fact, U.N. forces would be more effective on the ground, because they will have more elements of impartiality. They are not the enemy, and obviously, it would require a large number of soldiers to protect themselves, but I think they would be seen as less of a target than the NATO force,” he said.

A recent panel headed by former deputy prime minister John Manley of the previous Liberal government and appointed by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has recommended staying the military course against the Taliban, the Islamist movement that ruled Afghanistan until it was overthrown in the fall of 2001 by U.S.-led forces following the 9/11 attacks.

“A premature military withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether full or partial, would imperil Canadian interests and values. It would diminish the effectiveness of Canadian aid in Afghanistan, by further constraining the ability of Canadian aid workers to move among Afghans,” wrote Manley and other appointees to the independent panel on Afghanistan in their final report.

“It could encourage insurgents. It could weaken the confidence of some Afghans living in Kandahar in their own future and in their own government, increasing their susceptibility to the Taliban insurgency. It would undermine Canada’s influence in the U.N. and in NATO capitals, including Washington,” the panel concluded.

Since the report came out in late January, both the Conservatives and the largest opposition party, the Liberals, have reached a common position on Canada’s continued participation in the NATO ISAF force until 2011 if other alliance members cough up an additional 1,000 troops for the battlefield to fight the resurgent Taliban.

“I find it a curious thing that there is such silence in the Manley report on the question of reconciliation,” said Ernie Regehr, a senior adviser at Project Ploughshares. He and a number of others who offered insights into the panel can’t fathom why the idea of negotiations with insurgents – beyond Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s few initiatives – has so little traction.

“When the panel does mention reconciliation, what they are really promoting is a kind of amnesty, discussions with those elements in the Taliban that reject violence,” he said. “But that is not a serious attempt to deal with people who have genuine grievances against the current order.”

The fact is, Regehr said, one of the things that makes Taliban recruitment in the south possible is that “there is not a social stigma against joining the rebels, because the feeling is that the government is not theirs in any event.”

He and his colleagues say the people governing Afghanistan largely represent the Northern Alliance, one side in the ongoing Afghan civil war that was installed in Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 – thus leaving a major Pashtun-speaking political force in the south out in the cold. The Afghan resistance will remain entrenched, Regehr and others believe, as long as the mission remains the wrong one, in the wrong hands.

His other point is that the NATO-led mission is not a true U.N. mission, although it has received the sanction of the international body. What’s needed, Regehr and others argue, is a “multi-dimensional” United Nations-led peace process of mediation, reconciliation and political dialogue, a reliance on local institutions and customs and the negotiated disarmament of armed factions.

The question of what can be negotiated in terms of protection for human rights with a misogynistic force like the Taliban concerns the Vancouver-based Lauryn Oates, vice president of Canadian Women for Afghanistan and one of the signatories to a recent press release supporting the continued presence of NATO and Canadian troops in Afghanistan under U.N. auspices.

She told IPS she parts company with peace advocates who are pushing for talks with the Taliban. “No one is talking about talking to ordinary Afghan civilians. This is a small group of so-called experts in Canada that is just sort of deciding among themselves what should happen in Afghanistan,” she said.

Erika Simpson, a University of Western Ontario political scientist and author of “NATO and the Bomb: Canadian Defenders Confront Critics”, believes that NATO is the appropriate international military body for Afghanistan because the “bankrupt” United Nations and its department of peacekeeping operations lack the resources to achieve long-term security in that country.

“[NATO headquarters] hallways are buzzing with officers from all around the world, not just the 26 allies, and they are focused and they are committed to Afghanistan,” Simpson said.

According to Peggy Mason, an early critic of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, and a former Canadian ambassador for disarmament who worked with Ernie Regehr on a submission to the Manley panel, “The issue is not whether we want to promote basic human rights in Afghanistan. The issue is how we best do this.”

Mason advises caution towards any notion of NATO as a potential replacement for the U.N. when it comes to so-called failed states. A document with the august title, “Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World”, written by a group of former defence chiefs from the U.S. and Europe, offers a strong hint in that direction.

“This is the opposite of where we should be going,” Mason responded. “NATO cannot do this. NATO commanders who really understand know that the answer is to get NATO back into the U.N. blue helmet game because an integrated mission is the only way you can get the military strategy subordinated to the political one.”

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